Wild Child of the Forest

“How naked, and–how bold!”

These are Mother Wolf’s words to describe the man-cub discovered in the jungle, who has come to drink her milk with the other cubs. The wolves are astounded by the child’s lack of fur, so Mother Wolf names him for his smooth skin: Mowgli, meaning “frog” in Hindi. That man-cub is, of course, the protagonist of Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories, first published in 1894. Mowgli in India, like the later Tarzan in Africa (Burroughs’s novel Tarzan of the Apes first appeared in magazine form in 1912), grows up among the animals of the jungle a true naturist, a wild child without the slightest need for clothes.

Cover art by Stuart Tresilian (1891-1974)

Illustrators of the dozens of editions of these wildly popular stories have struggled with the matter of the characters’ nudity. The Mowgli-inspired site Wild at Heart offers a compendium of The Jungle Book cover illustrations, along with the complete texts of the stories, as well as links to many other illustrations and Mowgli-inspired fiction (some of the links, with clear warning, lead to adult content). The best naturists among these illustrators portray Mowgli’s nudity unabashedly. Others place a bough or turn a thigh to avoid depiction of genitalia. And still others, most notably the Disney team, rather insidiously introduce loincloths for both Mowgli and Tarzan, just as they would cover the Little Mermaid’s chest with a shell-bra contraption.

Beyond mermaids, another girl from the wild child tradition is Pyrénée, who grows up in the mountainous wilds along the border between Spain and France. Her adventures fill the 1998 French graphic novel Pyrénée by Regis Loisel and Philippe Sternis. Like Mowgli and Tarzan, Pyrénée learns from animals (a bear and an eagle), discovers a certain, limited utility for clothes (warmth in the winter), and eventually struggles to find a way to re-enter human textile society.

All of these literary and graphic creations are loosely based on tales of feral children, such as the Roman legend of city founder Romulus and his twin Remus, abandoned to die in the wild only to be suckled by a she-wolf and rescued by shepherds. But in her marvelous 2006 novel The Jungle Law, Victoria Vinton explores another possible influence on Kipling during the time he was composing the Mowgli stories: a unique friendship in the wintry countryside of Vermont, where the writer spent a few years and where his daughter was born. In Vinton’s “just-so” novel, Kipling befriends the neighbor child, Joe Connolly, who drinks in Kipling’s stories even as the boy’s own attempt to live those stories informs Kipling’s writing.

The boy is motivated, as so many of us are, by the fantasy of striking out from civilization and living in a natural state. Mowgli’s kindred spirit Huckleberry Finn, an American version of the wild child, described life on the river raft with Jim in a way that sums up the attraction as well as the utility of this natural state: “we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us–the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.”

At the ends of their wild child stories, Huck, Mowgli, Pyrénée, and Tarzan inevitably have to reconcile with “civilization.” That’s precisely why they can still teach us all a hard-fought lesson about the essential vitality of life without clothes.

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